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Fantasy and chamber pots

Posted by nightphoenix on August 25, 2011 in Books, Input |

Currently I’m about 3/4 of the way through A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, and I’ve got to return the book to the library by tomorrow. That is, of course, if Hurricane Irene doesn’t do a quick loop-da-loop and hit us after all.

I have mixed feelings about A Song of Ice and Fire (the overall series). My biggest problem is that I can make a pretty sizable list of things I don’t like: about the writing, about the characters (specifically how death is handled), about the sexism and sex and overall yuck factor, and…well you get the idea. On the other hand, I’m still reading it. None of these factors were enough to not bother with the current book, nor have they been enough to make me put the current book down. The story is still interesting enough, I guess. But see that’s just it. I can’t put my finger on why I haven’t had the urge to quit reading, and I can’t figure out why such a vague “like” factor should overrule that whole list of “don’t likes”.

If I had to rank in terms of overall enjoyment in the genre of epic fantasy, this is how my list would go: Mistborn, Wheel of Time, Name of the Wind, Dragonlance, Sword of Truth, Assassins/Liveships/Tawny Man, Deathgate Cycle, Belgariad/Mallorean, Song of Ice and Fire, Winds of the Forelands.

(That’s not counting any YA series, ’cause I feel like that’s a different beast. It’s also not counting The Way of Kings, because there’s only the one book so far. I have a suspicion it will shoot to the top pretty fast).

(Also, that list is not representative of how I feel about the writing of said series…for instance I think Sword of Truth is too heavy-handed and the Belgariad and Mallorean repetitive….but just how eager I was to finish the books and how much I enjoyed reading them. Honestly, Name of the Wind and Wheel of Time could trade places, but…WoT has seniority :)

So see, Ice and Fire is down there. It’s good enough to keep me into it, but barely. (Winds of the Forelands I had to force myself to finish. Because geez, warwarwar almost everyone dies. Meh.) I’m not going to be too upset if the final book never materializes (like this one almost didn’t…as a reader, I’m all “THAT’S ANNOYING!!1”, but as a writer, I can totally understand that slogging inch by inch through a manuscript and then glancing up going “Where the HELL has the year gone??”)

Interestingly, the things I don’t like about Ice and Fire: some have gotten better in A Dance With Dragons. The rash of people dying in stupid pointless ways has slowed to a trickle. There haven’t been nearly as many deaths all around, which is nice. It’s starting to look like at least some of the bad characters might possibly have a shot of seeing some comeuppance, you know, eventually. Hope? Not quite, but more like a lessening of utter despair.

Other things have gotten a lot worse. First of all, I absolutely cannot abide how this author treats women in this series. It’s like, yeah I know this is supposed to be a gritty, harsh world and all…but after a point, I begin to wonder how much of the blatant disgusting misogyny was put there on purpose, and how much is due to the unconscious worldview of the author. Women in A Song of Ice and Fire seem to exist for exactly one purpose: to be fucked by men. There are only two types of women in Martin’s epic: whores and not-yet-whores. A woman’s consent is irrelevant to the question of whether a man will stick his member in her…it only answers the question of whether or not it might be considered “rape” afterward. And nobody really cares whether it was rape or not. Women have no sexual agency whatsoever; it is the men who decide where, when, and how often a women will spread her legs. After all, that’s what women are FOR.

Even the women think this way in this world, which I find both abhorrent and utterly baffling. There was one scene where a female protagonist was assaulted by a male character intent on raping her. She fights him, he overpowers her…and then they have wild passionate sex which she absolutely enjoys. Only later do we find out she’s had this man as a lover for some time and is very attracted to him, wanted him, etc. I just…no. That is not how women think. There was nothing playful or coy about her telling him to bugger off (she drew a knife on him!). There is absolutely no reason to write a scene where a woman WANTS to be raped, even if she knows and has had sex with the guy before. It was disgusting. It confused me so bad that I had to flip forward and back several times to make sure I hadn’t MISSED some vital piece of information that would make that scene make any kind of sense. It threw me out of the story.

Also, I don’t remember nearly so many references to genitals that start with “c” in the other books. (Maybe my brain just sort of mentally tuned them out before). Have I mentioned that I hate, hate, hate those particular words? And sex with body parts. And fluids. And screaming. I just…ew. I know, I know, joyless world, crass characters, yadda yadda yadda…I don’t like it. Especially since I don’t know how much of it the author is deliberately channeling to create a certain mood or mindset…and how much of it is really how he sees things. Usually, when you write a book in which you must include morally offensive ideas…you present it well and realistically, yes, but at some point I feel like you’ve got to make it clear to your readers that the behavior in question is not okay. I haven’t gotten that vibe yet. The vibe I get is: it doesn’t matter whether something’s right or wrong…it’s how the world is, so deal with it. And maybe that’s the whole point.

Some point.

That actually takes me into…the yuck factor. I can deal with blood. You read fantasy, you’re going to see a lot of blood doing all sorts of things you’d just as soon not see: spraying, splattering, oozing, leaking, splashing, you get the idea. I can deal with body parts in written fantasy (movies…eh, not so much. Not a lot of it). Brains and entrails are common.

I cannot deal with human waste. And I’m really not exaggerating when I say that A Dance with Dragons is full of shit. Human shit, horse shit, pig shit, sick shit. There are many times where characters are described going to the bathroom (which I feel is generally unnecessary unless they get bit by a snake or something, you know, significant happens), in rather more detail than I felt necessary. I assume male characters take a piss from time to time. I might even assume they wake up with erections sometimes and you know, deal with that. You don’t have to tell me about it. Seriously. You don’t have to tell me about it. You’re going to make me think you’re obsessed with body parts or something. And honestly, the way you treat women in the story…

Ah but well. You’re probably by now wondering why I mentioned chamber pots.

Most traditional epic fantasy is based in a somewhat Medieval-ish setting with some magic or something thrown in. That means Medieval technology, which means you get around by some variety of horse (no self-powered vehicles), communicate by some variety of bird (no communication technology), defend yourself with swords, bows, and armor, or magic (no guns), pay taxes to a king or lord (no democracies), warm and light your house with fire (no electricity), eat from wooden, metal, ceramic, or glass flatware (no plastic), sew your own clothes and build your own furniture (no assembly-line produced goods), heal your wounds with raw herbs or magic (no advanced medicine), bathe by hauling buckets up to your room (no indoor plumbing), and sleep at the end of the day on a hay or feather mattress (no polyester or such).

And you do your business in a chamber pot in your room.

Now let’s be honest. The Medieval Age is not one in which most modern people would want to live, not if they’ve actually studied what it was like for a common shmuck back then. Life was harsh, unfair, hard, brutally short, and you stank through most of it.  So…why this institutionalized nostalgia as presented in fantasy literature? Well, to be fair, the Medieval period did produce some really kick-ass swords. And cathedrals. And there were knights, of course, which have a legacy that’s almost fantasy-ish in of itself. But I think the biggest reason is because of the magic. It is theorized that, if people had regular access to some source of supernatural power, humanity would have no particular reason to advance beyond the technological level of the late Medieval period. Magic would fill in the gap of technology, would provide all the advantages and conveniences that were, in real history, provided by science and technology.

My question is: if magic is supposed to fill in those gaps, why is there no indoor plumbing? Why does the widespread use of chamber pots persist in fantasy fiction??

It’s not like they can’t build pipes. Heck, you don’t even need magic for it…weren’t there some really ancient cities that had plumbing? This strange reliance on chamber pots and buckets of water just really doesn’t make sense. Why preserve THAT particular bit of Medieval reality, when so much of the rest is discarded? (Hot spring baths? How many people had access to those?) Peeing in one’s room is gross. It stinks. It attracts disease. You have to clean the pot. Did I mention it stinks?

If you’re lucky, an author might mention a random chamber pot once. Most don’t talk about the character’s bathroom arrangements at all, which is nice…although if you’re filling bathtubs with buckets, you’re probably peeing in pots. If that author is George R. R. Martin, you’ll get to read in rather graphic detail exactly how pervasive chamber pots are, and how often they are used, and even what happens when a character uses his bed or something else besides a chamber pot….yeah. Most authors leave the chamber pots offstage.

But they’re there, more often than not.

Why?

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